Aristotle’s third law of thought, the law of the excluded middle, has enjoyed a long and to some degree controversial history. Briefly, it posits that a statement must be either true or false, excluding any middle ground, which on the face of it makes perfectly good sense. Extrapolating from the domain of logic to the social world, however, the excluded middle takes on a different and indeed opposite connotation, for its absence spells not propositional rigor but cultural disaster.
Consider, for example, the operation of the law in the realm of everyday economic activity. Much has been written about the withering of the middle class in our over-regulated, tax-unfriendly times. See, for example, Vahab Aghai’s America’s Shrinking Middle Class, where we learn that “between 2000 and 2012, the United States lost 10 percent of its middle class jobs.” Meanwhile, low income jobs have grown commensurably.
The fiscal policy of holding interest rates below the rate of inflation wipes out the value of middle class savings. The glut of government regulations garrotes economic initiative while indirect taxes eat up a substantial chunk of the scraps direct taxation has left. Modest businesses cannot compete with large corporations, state-controlled industries and intrusive government bodies, sending many small entrepreneurs onto the welfare rolls. Craftsmen and trades people depend on the black market to avoid the department of revenue and its crushing value-added cash grab. Start-up innovators find themselves snagged in the Byzantine warrens of the patent office. Ranchers and cattle breeders have been targeted by the EPA and BLM (and similar agencies in other countries), whose bureaucrats have run amok in invasive and confiscatory practices with tacit administrative approval. And the rot is spreading. The old adage that the rich and the poor will always be with us skips over the fact that the middle may not.
It is a precept of economic wisdom that when the middle class is put out of business, as it were, economic stagnation and social decay inevitably ensue, and national unity is beset by civil unrest, unsustainable levels of poverty and cultural decline. According to reputable historians, this was one of the major causes of the implosion of Imperial Rome in the fourth and fifth centuries. When the tax burden grew so onerous that remittances began to dry up, “taxes no longer flowed to the seven hills,” writes James O’Donnell in The Ruin of the Roman Empire, “nor did the food supplies sent in lieu of taxes.” The crushing weight of taxation destroyed the farming sector—essentially the middle class of the empire—which formed the backbone of Roman society, and the social apparatus gradually collapsed with it. Famine and revolt were principal factors in facilitating the onslaught of the barbarian hordes, which completed the debacle.
Evasion became the order of the day, so much so that, as historian Robert Adams wrote in Decadent Societies, “by the fifth century, men were ready to abandon civilization itself in order to escape the fearful load of taxes.” Moreover, when a disproportionate number of those who do not pay taxes or contribute to the economy ride on a diminishing number of those who do—the case in many Western nations—an inflexion point will be reached where the productive estate is economically disenfranchised. One recalls Silvia Morandotti’s famous wagon cartoon, a visual rendition of archeologist Joseph Tainter’s remark on the Roman breakdown in The Collapse of Complex Societies that “those who lived by the treasury were more numerous than those paying into it.” We are observing a similar disincentivizing process at work today. Redistribution of legitimate earnings to the treasury and to those living off “entitlements” presages social and cultural atrophy. As Milton Friedman warned in Free to Choose, when the “distribution of income” is skewed to the disadvantage of the industrious and entrepreneurial strata, the corollary is one or another form of “dissipation.”
In these ways, the middle class is squeezed out of the political equation, with predictable results for the rest of the social order: economic hardship, lack of employment, declining birth rates, cultural anomie, and the importation of migratory peoples regarded, in the words of Greek-Egyptian poet Constantine Cavafy’s “Waiting for the Barbarians,” as “a kind of solution.” Neither the culture nor the market will die overnight, but the symptoms of terminal degeneracy are everywhere to be seen.
An excluded middle can have deleterious consequences in other realms as well, most critically in education, where skills are formed and attitudes consolidated, impacting the culture at large. I have observed during a lengthy and varied teaching career—both as a professor and writer-in-residence—the gradual shriveling of the middle range of students. My classes and seminars slowly came to consist of a thinly populated top tier of bright stars, a thick sediment of dim pedagogical objects incapable of much in the way of intelligible response, and a smattering of in-betweens. My wife, a professor at a large Canadian university, has remarked the same phenomenon and has discussed it on this site, though in a far more discreet and species-specific way, in an article aptly titled “The Unteachables: A Generation that Cannot Learn.” The belief of the plurality of unqualified students, she writes, “that nothing requires improvement except the grade is one of the biggest obstacles that teachers face in the modern university.” These students enter university already convinced that they are the cream when they are, in fact, the curdle. There is almost no way to patch through to them with the message that there is enormous ground to recover.
How, then, is one to teach? If the professor focuses on the able and willing, perhaps 90% of the class is cast into oblivion. If she directs her attention to the unteachable majority, it follows that the intelligent and motivated, who merit and would demonstrably profit from such attention, are cheated of their due. Regrettably, the administrative perspective on this conundrum favors the incompetent, blockish and parasitical layer at the bottom at the expense of both the good student’s proper benefit and the good teacher’s professional conscience. One can treat with a heterogeneous middle, some of whom will awaken to the delights of learning and others who can be expected to bear with the presumed ordeal of memory and instruction, but where the middle contracts or vanishes, the entire enterprise becomes self-defeating.
Although marked by certain destabilizing resemblances, such as monetary inflation and grade inflation, or a warped distribution of income and a misbegotten distribution of talent, there is, of course, a distinction between the two excluded middles we are considering. The socioeconomic middle is the glue of a democratic nation, that which binds it together and creates the economic stability that allows it to flourish and to retain its coherence. It is the guarantor of a genuinely liberal polity. The educational middle is a pool of intermittent and potential competencies that allows for a viable teaching and learning environment. The teacher need not abandon her elite students in order to cater to a tepid and undifferentiated mass that is largely beyond intellectual rescue, nor concentrate on the former while hampered by a guilty conscience for recoiling from the latter. An included middle markedly facilitates a more equitable educational transaction. The teacher retains some flexibility, appealing to the middle to approximate the top while providing for a reasonable dispensation of pedagogical goods.
But as things now stand in a progressively dumbed down culture festering on entitlements, crippled by political correctness, and preoccupied with identity politics, institutional resentments, the canards of “diversity” and affirmative action, and the spurious campaign for “social justice,” the educational establishment has devolved into a recursive image of the greater culture by a kind of Droste effect while at the same time contributing to the cultural distortions it reflects. We are not speaking of the scientific and technical disciplines where the more intelligent and dedicated students are to be found, but of the sinks of uselessness comprising most English Literature programs, Cultural and Identity Studies, and Sociology departments.
The upshot is that most Arts and Humanities graduates are not fit for actual life, having learned little except how to parrot their activist professors, chant slogans, howl vulgarities and shut down speaking events with which they disagree. Such skills are not particularly marketable and the classifieds are not infinitely elastic. A still-functioning market will eventually pronounce a harshly punitive verdict on the massive cohort of mediocrities who continue to graduate on greased skids into the real world. Admittedly, they are the casualties of defective early schooling, the pedagogy of self-esteem and the moral devastation of an adulticide culture, but all too few have the inner strength to recognize their plight and grapple with their condition. It’s a sad state of affairs, but there seems little that can be done at present to redress it.
True, the more fortunate aspirants will manage to find employment as administrators, teachers and sessionals in academia, as social workers and as government bureaucrats, remunerated by an ever dwindling taxpayer base. But such positions are finite and the supply will necessarily outstrip the demand. Competition will become fierce for even superfluous jobs and appointments. Part time and menial labor will be their only resource, failing which the social justice warriors will become welfare recipients—like their betters extruded from the middle class—until society can no longer afford to subsidize them. We will have entered, to quote Russian poet Sergey Stratanovsky (and he should know), “into the communal muddle,” which he piquantly calls “the Leningrad stairwell.” Another socialist utopia will collapse in financial squalor and public malaise.
To paraphrase PJ Media’s Richard Fernandez, the middle class may well be “losing faith in the platform” of the collectivizing Left. But the issue is whether it will endure long enough to overturn a progressivist campaign “predicated on the assumption that a… government can defy the laws of financial gravity.” The situation is arguably worse for the educational middle—the “feeder school” for the environing culture—which is not so much losing faith as losing out, whittled into insignificance and devoid of even residual electoral clout to register its anger and indignation. It is a miscellaneous aggregate lacking the social congruity and at least partially unified consciousness of the economic middle, and therefore without recourse. The disenchanted middle class can vote for Donald Trump’s populist agenda; the vestigial class middle can vote for nothing much since it is typically uninformed, is fungibly dispersed and, indeed, has effectively disappeared.
In any event, just as the so-called “War on Poverty” turned out to be a leveling project and thus a war on general prosperity, the Dewey-inspired “progressivist” or “child-centered” paradigm at the root of modern educational dysfunction is really a war on scholarship. The mindset in play leads in either case to the transitory empowerment of the lowest common denominator, at the expense of the once-majority middle echelons—until the entire system, failing a decisive change of course, must inexorably go bust. The road to serfdom is paved with discarded medians.
One thing remains painfully clear—or should. When middles are excluded, whether in the halls of academia or the arena of productivity, a miniscule tier at the top may yet find means to benefit or survive while the bottom will form a spreading magma of misery and destitution. The buffer of in-betweeness will have been eliminated. And a once-vigorous culture will subside into a condition of economic and intellectual inertia.